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Barking with Burke: My Politics 741

I used to have a dachshund named Burke, and Kenneth Burke used to punningly refer to himself as Kennel Bark. Sometimes, visiting Burke the man, when I was accompanied by Burke the dog, I would yell at the dog and the man would answer. This marvelous self-irony is similar to Burke’s capacity to say that war is the disease of cooperation or that any system must provide the instruments for its own criticism. And that is what Burke the poet tells us–that he is not one, but many: that he is aphorist, comedian, dialectician, logologer, dramatist, and poet; that we must remember that the man who built the system is also the man who fought dandelions–fair and square.

William Howe Rueckert, Encounters with Kenneth Burke 27

Burke’s nearly impossible to reduce. “He has never made it into a book club,” they say. But if you had to simplify him, it would be that he insists that we humans are bent toward tragedy, but we need to — if even for a brief moment — live in comedy.

Remember in English lit when your teacher explained the difference between a Shakespearean tragedy and comedy? It’s the same in Aristotle, for that matter. In tragedy somebody dies to cleanse the community from its sin. One dude(tte) rises as the normative character to see the resolution through to the end. Comedies, however, always end with an engagement, wedding, or consumation — a joining together of disparate parts, not subsuming or killing each other, but embracing and improving each other.

It’s not that in comedy we just settle in for a drunken love-in (what a boring story!). It’s not just about accepting one another and ignoring problems. It’s not permissiveness.

No, in comedy, there’s critique. There’s argument. There’s foolishness. There’s irony. But there’s no killing.

In comedy, you don’t look down your aquiline nose at your inferiors chained to the dank cave walls while you enjoy a glimpse at the pretty tree outside. You don’t ignore the guard imprisoning you in your Panopticon. It’s something else entirely.

In comedy, you take your enemies and make them your adversaries. They are no longer evil, just mistaken. In other words, you talk with them, correct them, teach them, be taught by them, and laugh at the whole lot . . . including yourself.

In comedy, there’s no us-vs.-them. It’s us-vs.-the-problem.

In my opinion, Burke’s comedy is a shadow of the Gospel. Burke gets it wrong on many points, as I’ve said elsewhere. But when Christ said on the cross “it is finished,” He was declaring the sacrifice complete. It was done. Tragedy was no longer necessary. He’d taken it all.

And because of Christ, we can all be comedians. We can see our sins in others and not kill them off, but remember our failings and our undeserved forgiveness. That’s the Drama of Grace.

Look how in Life is Beautiful protagonist Guido Orefice tries to translate the worst tragedy into (literal) comedy for his son. About nine minutes in, Uncle Eliseo chivalrously helps the Nazi guard when she stumbles. He’s going to his death, and yet . . . for a moment he forgets that and is simply and gently human.


That’s the story I learned about from Burke, on the Left, from disbelieving agnostics. Even though I was raised in Bible-believing, God-fearing, sola-gratia conservative Protestantism, I never learned to look for it there. But I should have . . . because that’s the whole Gospel story: I love Him because He first loved me.

9 thoughts on “Barking with Burke: My Politics 741

  1. Camille – I’m about half-way through your dissertation – it is slow going for me. I’m used to reading financial statements. This post was helpful to better understand how you & Burke use the ideas of Comedy & Tragedy. You see the gospel of Christ as comedy but isn’t the rejection of Christ the ultimate comedic act? Turning away from Christ feels like allopathy to me while everything I grew up in was homeopathy.

    I too was raised in Bible-believing Protestantism (BJU class of 1980), and I didn’t find it there because it isn’t there.

    A couple of observations:

    1. I was at BJU when Reagan and John Connelly came to speak in Chapel. No one had experienced anything like that before. While the Jones spoke about current events from the Chapel pulpit, the school had never gotten that close the political world. In light of everything that has happened since 1980 – Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, etc. – doesn’t this represent fundamentalism turning from Romance to Tragedy? Is it any wonder that they have lost their way and are losing their children?

    2. IMHO you overstate the meaning of the art gallery. The art gallery was the play thing of an eccentric man with a good eye and some money. After the required freshman orientation tour, few students ever go back inside. It felt like a big dead space in the middle of campus. I frequently went on Sunday afternoons because it was one of the few places on campus I could reliably be alone. I’m not sure how good it really is – the comments you provide and I’ve read others like them focus on the strangeness of the place – the bright colors nontraditional galleries and obscure art. While there are some great paintings, there is a lot of dreck. I have also heard rumors that not all the paintings are authentic – Dr. Bob may have gotten taken a few times. Also, what did it mean when they sent Emory Bopp over to use his paintbrush to make some of the women’s tops more modest? A friend and I knew all the paintings that had been doctored – it wasn’t done very well. It just feels like you fell for their story – “look at us – we’re not weird – we’re cultured.” But not really.

    3. Frames – the lack of context. This is found all over the place in fundamentalism. When I started reading and studying the documentary theories I was startled to suddenly be reading the Old Testament in context to what was going on at the time. There were political reasons why J and E were stitched together and why both books of Kings and both books of Chronicles were included. I knew the Old Testament very well but in a one dimensional, literal reading. I found it ironic that the fundamentalists who insisted it was literally true were missing the real stories.

    As I read your dissertation today I repeatedly was reminded of Karen Armstrong’s book, “The Battle for God.” This is from her afterward:

    “….a large number of people still want to be religious and have tried to evolve new forms of faith. Fundamentalism is just one of these modern religious experiments, and, as we have seen, it has enjoyed a certain success in putting religion squarely back on the international agenda, but it has often lost sight of some of the most sacred values of the confessional faiths. Fundamentalists have turned the mythos of their religion into logos, either by insisting that their dogmas are scientifically true, or by transforming their complex mythology into a streamlined ideology. They have thus conflated two complementary sources and styles of knowledge which the people in the premodern world had usually decided it was wise to keep separate. The fundamentalist experience shows the truth of this conservative insight. By insisting that the truths of Christianity are factual and scientifically demonstrable, American Protestant Fundamentalists have created a caricature of both religion and science.”

  2. So you’re the other one reading my dissertation! 😀

    1) You’re jumping ahead to the last, “forbidden” chapter that I published here. In sum, I agree. But I’d love to hear more about 1980.

    2) Yeah, I think, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, you’re right. I admit that I was trying to prescribe to BJU as much as describe. No, I probably was prescribing more — how they should be beautiful and relevant to their audience.

    3) I’ll buy that. I just put the book on my Wish list, thanks! She sounds like Benjamin Barber. Ever read him?

  3. Yes, I’ve read and enjoyed Benjamin Barber – but Karen Armstrong isn’t writing about politics. Her gift is to write clearly about difficult religious ideas. Her books are fascinating and frankly, I’d read her grocery list if it was published.

    Why won’t someone debunk the “BJU and academic excellence” meme? While there are some talented teachers at BJU (such as the present company, I’m sure), most of the University programs are mediocre at best. (Afterall, what university is strong in every program?) And accreditation?! They were accredited by the same organization which accredits the Creation Science Institute. Does anyone believe they could win accreditation by a legitimate, nationally recognized agency? BJU has always relied on myth-building over real academic rigor.

    Rule of thumb is that any organization trumpeting their excellence probably isn’t very excellent.

    Ok – rant off/

    I don’t know what to say about BJU circa 1980. I was a basket case by that time and not able to make very clear judgements. I wasn’t political then, but I do remember many of the faculty supported Ronald Reagan and were dismayed when BJIII endorsed John Connelly. The idea of fundamentalism involved in the Things of Ceasar back then was new and to many people very exciting and a little dangerous. Personally, I was just thinking about graduate school at a big name Eastern conservatory and how I was going to pay tuition and where I was going to live.

    I finished your dissertation. I wonder how different it would have been if you had not been connected to the University when you wrote it? The 2000 election chapter was interesting. I think it was a Comedy, Camille, except the hero wasn’t BJU, it was George W. Bush. In every comedy there is a villain (think Don Juan from Much Ado) and the villain hightails it out of town at the end amid laughter and wedding celebrations. BJU is the villian of this comedy. George Bush wins the election over John McCain and then Al Gore and BJU is exiled from the public stage for how long? Who knows?

    I watched BJIII on Larry King live and I believe he lied through his teeth when he said that 5 or 6 generations of students hadn’t heard the inter-racial rule preached.

    Maybe there is justice – or at least karma – the University is being punished in a way that is particularly hurtful to them. As the religious right becomes more vocal and arguably influential, they are excluded from public discourse ever to be a pariah.

    I don’t have a problem with that – I think they are reaping what they’ve sown.

    Two stories:

    1. About 1972 my church dedicated a new addition and BJ Jr. came to speak. My father and I picked him up at the airport. On the drive back to the church my father asked BJ Jr. what the court case was about. He replied, “They want us to take niggers, plain and simple.” Exact words – I heard them. My father nearly ran off the road.

    2. School year 1979/1980 – I accompanied several musical groups – had been on two ensembles and worked with several faculty member duos. As a result, I was out on the plane with BJ III nearly every weekend. I got to know him (and pilot Larry Carver) very well. We got snowed in once – watched Patton on TV with Dr. Bob – he knew every line.

    Recently he had preached a very good sermon in Chapel and I asked him why he hadn’t had an alter call – it led up to one and I think he connected with students that day. He said “they won’t let me.”

    The moral of these stores:
    Racism is the fatal flaw from the foundation of BJU and BJ III, while absolutely not a racist, passively accepted what he inherited. Until they publically acknowledge the awful mistakes of the past and repent, and probably re-brand themselves as something other than Bob Jones University, they remain the exiled villains of someone else’s comedy and not the hero of their own Romance.

  4. WOW! What insights from BJU during some of the same years I was at the Acad. We used to talk about Jr having a love/hate relationship with The Carol Burnette Show. He would talk about some of the sketches on Monday chapel, if he were the speaker. I think he forgot that dorm students didn’t have TV’s.

    But, knowing every word of Patton in the late ’70’s – before VCR’s? I think there were some rules broken… .

  5. Dan – I’m not sure rules were broken. Back in the olden days before VCR’s, Kathryn Stenholm would screen the latest Hollywood movies for her students. They didn’t talk about it and you would only know if you were in tight with a Cinema major.

  6. gordo – I was there during that time also (79-83). I remember thinking that John Connelly had been prepped with exactly what to say in order to fall in line with prevailing opinions at BJ. On the other hand, Reagan seemed to just speak his mind — some things coinciding with BJ opinion and other things divergent.

  7. Cindy – you may be right. I remember that the Reagan chapel was electric compared to John Conelly. Nancy was sitting on the FMA platform in a bright red dress – she had a coughing fit and BJIII got her some water.

    I don’t remember what either of them said.

    You know how things can get in a rut at school but then something like that comes up to add excitement.

    I also remember a lot of students down at the front of FMA after Reagan spoke trying to meet him. I don’t think he had Secret Service yet.

    Funny what comes back after 28 years!

  8. I watched BJIII on Larry King live and I believe he lied through his teeth when he said that 5 or 6 generations of students hadn’t heard the inter-racial rule preached.

    You can say that again!! The alumni involved in the spear-heading of the “Please Reconcile” campaign were all students there during those “5 or 6 generations” (as were most all of the ones who have signed). We were there, we heard it all, and no PSA by BJ III on Larry King Live can change those facts.

    Sorry, C. /end rant.

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